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Building a Girl’s Confidence and Skills, One Hammer at a Time


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Growing up on a 10-acre farm in Oregon, Katie Hughes’ chores went beyond throwing out the trash or setting the table. She chopped wood, repaired fences, and even made animal pens. Building things was in her blood, so she spent some time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity on the East Coast through AmeriCorps. Hughes later earned a degree in social work, but struggled to find a job in that field. She returned to Oregon and returned to what she loved —  building. 

Back home in Portland, she was volunteering framing houses for a Habitat for Humanity blitz, where the nonprofit builds several houses over a week. One day, a local construction business owner offered her a job as a crew lead. 

Girls Build is Born

Hughes later transitioned to a nonprofit, where she taught classes that aimed to help women get in the construction field. She also ran the group’s girls program and set up a summer camp. When she left the job after a few years, Hughes says the organization cut the girls program. 

“When that happened, I was working somewhere else, and I basically had a bunch of tradeswomen approach me and say, ‘What are we going to do about the girls?’” recalls Hughes.  

“I basically had a bunch of tradeswomen approach me and say, ‘What are we going to do about the girls?’” recalls Hughes.   

In 2016, Hughes founded her own program: Girls Build. The summer camp for girls age 8 to 14 teaches the basics of building, including carpentry, plumbing, electrical, concrete, sheet metal, and other skills. The organization also has after-school programs and holds classes for girls 12-18 who are in a youth detention center. 

So far, about 270 girls have participated in the summer camps and after-school program, Hughes says, and another 240 completed a Girl Scout program with the organization. Girls Build, a nonprofit, works in Portland, southern Oregon, and Astoria/Warrenton. This year, it is planning to expand into Seattle. 

The Girls Build summer camps have become so popular that this year’s camps sold out in a single day. Also, this year, campers will be traveling in from outside the area to attend.

Each camp session features 20 different workshops per week, each focusing on a different trade. So, each camper is likely to find something that interests her, Hughes explains. 

“It’s just opening up the opportunity to showing girls that there are lots of hands-on skills out there and they might enjoy some more than others. The important part is they might enjoy some of them,” she says. 

Teaching Life Skills

Along with learning building skills, the girls become more curious and confident through trying new things and pushing themselves. After all, as Hughes says, “building curiosity and confidence in girls through the world of building” is part of the Girls Build mission. 

"They're swinging a hammer like they've been doing it for 20 years and they're only eight. So I think that it also translates to other parts of their lives, like school or social groups.”  

“We can see that throughout the week as girls are learning new tasks,” she says. “The very first day of the camp, you have a girl who is very shy, very quiet. By the end of the first or second day, the girls are louder, and by the end of the last day, they are loud, they're excited, they're bold. They're walking confidently through camp and they’re using tools safely but with a sort of casual air to it. They're swinging a hammer like they've been doing it for 20 years and they're only eight. So I think that it also translates to other parts of their lives, like school or social groups.” 

Many of the Girls Build instructors are female, providing the girls with role models in the industry. The organization has staff, but Hughes says they partner with other groups and bring in people from various construction industries to lead workshops. 

“We just try to bring in as many people as we can to teach the girls and to show them the skills. Also, it's cool for the girls to see women in a wide variety of skills,” she says. 

Because Girls Build is only two years old, Hughes says she’s not sure how many girls that have gone through the program will be inspired to pursue a construction career. While construction is a high-paying, rewarding career, bringing in younger people depends on educating parents about its benefits. 

“I think the reasons why a career in construction is beneficial for women are the same reasons why it's beneficial to men,” Hughes says.  

“It’s a conversation we’re trying to have, but I think it's going to be a long, complicated conversation,” Hughes says.  

Attracting the next generation to the trades is essential to the industry’s future, as workforce shortages exist nationwide and workers are aging out of the job. Drawing more women into the industry is equally important.

“I think the reasons why a career in construction is beneficial for women are the same reasons why it's beneficial to men,” Hughes says. 

“The pay is great; the work is incredibly rewarding. It's not that women are better than men at construction. It's that women deserve the opportunity to experience that pride and to offer the skills and attributes that they have. When you don't have women out there working, you're missing 50 per cent of our collective skillset.” 

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